Babel-17 is an oldie-but-goodie from my dad’s science fiction collection, which he passed on to me when I moved back to Canada ten years ago. I was allowed to dip into that sci-fi collection at a young age, and was reading Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham, Brian Aldiss, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Larry Niven, Frederick Pohl, and more starting from the age of ten. At twelve, I was sweating my way through Asimov’s essays about science and the universe, not understanding much, but feeling as if I was being opened up to an amazing awareness of atoms and galaxies. My dad also had some women writers in his collection, like Leigh Brackett, Zenna Henderson, and Andre Norton, but it was my mom who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Doris Lessing, and Anne McCaffrey (whom I met once, but that’s another story).
Samuel R. Delany stands out as one of my big faves among those old-time sci-fi writers. Some of the reasons for that were things I felt but could not really articulate at the time, such as the way his female characters were actual people, and the freedom within and outside relationships that a lot of his characters have. Not in a “let’s-screw-whoever-we-want” kind of way, but more in an “everyone-has-bodily-and-sexual-autonomy-as-a-matter-of-course” kind of way. I would never have used this concept back when I was a pre-teen, but I liked that he was the most feminist of all the boys. The other thing was that his characters were not all white or presumed to be white. Again, this is something I could not articulate at that age, but having been explicitly racialised from my preverbal days, it is something I have always noticed and appreciated. Being positioned as “other” within my own family seems to have predisposed me to see this (and note its absence). Another thing I always liked about Delany’s writing is that is it not heteronormative. There are sexual relationships, but his worlds tend to be places where the gender of the parties involved is irrelevant. Relationships are not always closed dyads, either. Before I even really understood about sex, I already knew that my attraction was not just to cis-men, so I also appreciated relaxing into a fictional world that reflected that aspect of me.
I heard somewhen over time that Delany was Black and gay. I googled him to check that out, and it turns out that he is indeed Black, and has been variously described as gay and bi. He was married for a while to the poet Marilyn Hacker, who later identified as lesbian, and wikipedia says they both had “affairs” with both men and women. I put “affairs” in quotes because wikipedia also says that they were experimenting with polyamory, which means the other liaisons weren’t actually “affairs.” (Get it right, spurn heteronormativity!)
After reading Delany’s Dhalgren in my early teens, my poetry was studded with imagery from that book (and from the Nevèrÿon books) for months: shards of lights shattering against rusted towers, frayed cables sinking into copper-glinted pools, shadows bleeding across worn stones, and so forth. Embarrassing to look back upon, now, but I thought it was quite brilliant at the time.
Babel-17 is a short book compared to some of Delany’s other works, but it is really quite amazing. The book was first published in 1966 (my copy is from that year), and features a strong female protagonist who is a poet, and whose knowledge of language, syntax, and grammar allow her to decipher the “military code” that has stymied the Alliance in its war against the Invaders. It turns out that the “code” is actually a language, and the language has a fascinating feature which makes it pretty much impossible to figure out without the special blend of linguistic expertise and creative instinct of a poet. I’m not going to tell you what it is, because to me it was the most interesting aspect of the plot. I mean, I guess you could google it, but just in case you actually want to read the book without spoilers, I’m keeping this clean!
The story itself is typical sci-fi, with spaceships, space wars, fancy weapons and technology, a love interest, and so forth. Delany’s books often contain at least one big burly damaged man who turns out to be tender and loving. I like that a lot of his people are kind of messed up; it makes them more real. The only thing I didn’t like about my re-reading of this book was the use of some of the language around mental illness, especially in the wrap-up. It wasn’t stigmatising so much as… just… displaying a lack of awareness of what some of these words actually mean. It fits with its time, I guess, but was a bit jarring. The book is a quick read with a straightforward plot; it is certainly not the most complex sci-fi book around.
This is a book I have thought about a lot over the years since I first read it. It was one of the turning points for me to start thinking about language in a deeper way. I have been writing poetry in English since I was ten years old, and it was after reading this book that I started writing in French as well, because it made me think about how different languages make you think differently—how the words you use constrain what you are able to think and say.
Obviously I first read Delany’s books at a young and impressionable age. But I think they tapped into something I have always liked, which is collage and assemblage, the messy layering of many things, with hints of things hidden underneath, with tangles and open ends and uncertainties. It was a lot of fun to revisit the worlds of Babel-17, where the discorporate deceased are essential spaceship crew members, and cosmetic surgery leads to wings and subcutaneous light shows, and starship pilots are neurally connected to the ship, and a poet saves the day.
Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany. 1966.